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Anglo-Saxonists and eBay


Thomas A. Bredehoft, University of Northern Colorado

[ONLINE NOTE: Eileen Joy's response to this essay appears in in OEN 37.3; read it online here. - ed.]

[Editor's Introduction: In early April of 2003 the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad was systematically ransacked, a considerable portion of its priceless collection looted or destroyed and its records vandalized. The true details of the event are still the subject of intense debate and may never be fully known, but at the time the story sent a profound shock through the worldwide academic community. Perhaps we scholars had not wanted to believe that the brutality of war would not spare a building dedicated to the preservation of art, history, and culture, or that an enraged people might destroy their own cultural heritage, or that an army sent to conquer a nation would not pause to protect possessions less strategically useful than oilfields and power grids.

At the same time, a world away, a much happier series of events was unfolding on the Isle of Man (the story can be found at http://www.gov.im/infocentre/). Andy Whewell, a local metal detectorist, had unearthed a magnificent hoard of Viking-Age silver consisting of 464 silver pennies, 25 silver ingots and part of an armlet. Mr. Whewell promptly reported his discovery to Manx National Heritage, who held it for safekeeping. In August the find was declared "Treasure Trove" by High Bailiff Michael Moyle; the ruling gave Manx National Heritage ownership of the hoard. Eventually the site will be fully studied, the hoard placed on display in the Manx Museum, and Mr. Whewell amply rewarded for declaring the items. Meanwhile efforts continue in Baghdad and around the world to assess the extent of the damage to the Iraqi National Museum, reconstruct the events surrounding the looting, and recover as many lost items as possible from the local population, the hidden recesses of the museum itself, and the global marketplace in antiquities.

The coincidence of these two events may serve as a reminder of the complexity of our relationships—legal, ethical, professional, political, emotional-—to the past. When their reports first made the news-, I was only dimly aware of the laws governing the recovery and sale of ancient artifacts; as I learned more I became fascinated by the problems of reconciling the interests of professional archaeologists, amateur historians, and dealers in antiquities, and by the debates that have raged among these groups over the proper way to handle new discoveries (the Council for British Archaeology maintains a substantial archive of discussions, reports, and documents on this topic; the CBA guide to portable antiquities, metal detecting and archaeology can be found at http://www.britarch.ac.uk/detecting/index.html). The pleasantly old-fashioned term "Treasure Trove" denotes precious objects which have been deliberately hidden (rather than lost or abandoned) and for which no rightful owner can be traced. Such objects are legally the property of the Crown, not their finders or the owners of the land on which they are found. When, for example, the North Suffolk Coroner determined in 1939 that the astonishing assortment of objects then being unearthed at Sutton Hoo were originally part of a grave, not a hidden cache, he ruled that they were not "Treasure Trove" and thus legally belonged to Edith Pretty, the owner of the estate of Sutton Hoo (thankfully, she then donated them to the British Museum). In all such cases the legal status of found objects has traditionally been determined by an official hearing whose purpose is to establish the intentions of the original owners. The laws governing "Treasure Trove" in the UK were revised in 1996 and the need to establish original intent removed (the Isle of Man, a self-governing Crown Dependency of the British Isles, still follows the older law), but all finds of "treasure" must still be reported to the District Coronor within 14 days, and entrusted to a local museum or achaeological body; failure to do so can result in imprisonment for up to three months, fines of up to £5,000, or both. If a find is determined to be "treasure" it is reported to the British Museum or the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, who then decide whether they or some other museum want to acquire them. If they do, the find is appraised by the Treasure Valuation Committee; the finder receives the market value of the object as a reward (professional archaeologists are not eligible for this reward, nor is any finder who has broken the law in the course of his or her discovery). Only if the museums decide they do not want the objects are they returned to the finder.

As a literary scholar, these concerns at first seemed remote to me; after all, new manuscripts turn up far less frequently than new coins or burial sites, and their ownership seldom needs to be determined by a Coroner's inquest. But gradually I came to think of the situation, particularly set against the bleak background of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, as emblematic of the problem of historicism itself. Questions of intention, ownership and evaluation are the bread and butter of our professional practice; recovering, reconstructing, preserving and re-presenting the past is a complicated business, even if we are often too absorbed in its technical aspects to consider its broader cultural implications. Many of us naturally assume that objects deemed to be part of a nation's cultural heritage (but which objects?) "belong" in a museum (but which museum?) and should be entrusted to the care of "experts" for study and preservation (but on what terms?), but these assumptions, along with the definition of terms like "culture" and "heritage" and "nation," are by no means universally shared. And while the ownership and value of individual objects may be settled by an inquest and all the interested parties satisfied by the result, no one owns the past itself. Its value and meaning can change radically from one context to another; the past can become a dangerously unstable place as political circumstances change. And despite all our efforts as professional historians and literary scholars to earn some kind of authority built on knowledge and experience, we may be dismayed to find that our voice is only one among many (and seldom the loudest or most convincing) in the cultural marketplace. The outrage felt by some Anglo-Saxonists over Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf—sometimes accompanied by assertions that he had no "right" to "politicize" the poem—is only one example of the dissonance between popular and academic attitudes towards our subject. The wholesale destruction of a country's National Museum is quite another. Insisting that there is a thread connecting these two events is the purpose of this long introduction to a short essay.

Those of us who make a living from the study of the past do not have the exclusive right to speak for it, however much we may feel we have earned it. We do, however, have the responsibility to consider the ways in which the world outside our small circle relates to the objects and artifacts, texts and images, that form the subject of our study. Perhaps we should begin to take a more nuanced view of our role in creating and promoting the ideas about the "Middle Ages" that make their way into popular culture and support a surprisingly broad spectrum of ideologies, identities, and values. The following essay by Tom Bredehoft examines one very practical point along this interface between Anglo-Saxon studies and the world at large: the trade in archaeological antiquities. Along with more pleasant observations (such as the market in second-hand books), it asks us in a small but direct way to consider who owns the past, who claims the right to possess it, and what obligations we have as scholars towards perceived abuses or misuses of artifacts, evidence, even of "the past" itself. In the midst of a string of remarkable new archaeological finds from Anglo-Saxon England, and continuing debate in related fields such as Near Eastern Studies over the propriety of studying objects which have circulated on the open market, and the disheartening awareness that museums are not always the safe repositories we hope them to be, I believe this essay has particular resonance. It is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series exploring questions of the ethical responsibilities of Anglo-Saxon studies; OEN invites your response (please direct these to the Editor, rliuzza@utk.edu, rather than the author of the piece). –RML]

The internet auction service eBay advertises itself as "The World's On-line Marketplace," and although eBay may be unfamiliar to some Anglo-Saxonists it has much that might interest them, and it may well provide cause for reconsidering some long-standing opinions about at least some aspects of the relationship between scholars and the artifacts of the past. In this essay, a kind of introduction to eBay for Anglo-Saxonists, I hope to offer brief surveys of both topics.

As I suspect most Anglo-Saxonists know, eBay is an on-line auction service where buyers and sellers can conduct transactions for everything from used shoes to real estate. Auctions on eBay are organized into hundreds of specialized categories, while remaining completely (and globally) searchable. People interested in the Anglo-Saxon period need only go to eBay's website (http://www.ebay.com) and type "Anglo-Saxon" (or, indeed, "Anglo Saxon") into the search box and they will be immediately confronted with a number of auctions, often as many as two hundred or more, employing these words. Of course, a large number of these auctions would probably be of little interest to most Anglo-Saxonists: in a recent survey of 271 auctions in progress, no fewer than fifty "Anglo Saxon" auctions consisted of CDs with with assemblages of machine-scanned (and machine-readable) texts, while forty other miscellaneous auctions that happened to use the words "anglo" and "saxon" in their text offered everything from VHS videos to works of "outsider art" to opal jewelry. Another dozen or so auctions were for modern sets of "rune stones" or other objects associated with neo-pagan or Wiccan perspectives.

Nearly a hundred of these auctions, however, were for books. In the years I have been watching eBay, I have seen a number of books that would be of interest to Anglo-Saxonists, including copies of the ASPR, Bosworth and Toller's Dictionary and its supplement, dozens of older Old English readers and grammars, facsimiles of the Utrecht Psalter and the épinal glossary, Whitelock's English Historical Documents, and sets of back issues of Speculum and Anglo-Saxon England. Some of these books I have actually bought, and the sellers have generally been reliable and courteous, ensuring smooth and easy transactions. One can never know what one will find, but good books do turn up on eBay, and they sometimes sell for good prices. Other items turn up on eBay as well, including a fair number of maps and prints. I have also seen people offer lesson plans on Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon England, and I even have seen term papers (on Beowulf) offered for sale. A frequently appearing auction for "loveable liverwort" must use the words "Anglo-Saxon" somewhere, as it often turns up in my searches. Computer searches can be both productive and amusing, and eBay is a vast and varied marketplace.

But during the same search of 271 auctions with the words "anglo" and "saxon," I also found four listings for Anglo-Saxon coins and eight listings for other Anglo-Saxon artifacts, sometimes in groups, including strap-ends, buckles, pins, and brooches (or fragments of same). [1] The numbers of these auctions are typical, in my experience (or even a little low), and since the average auction on eBay lasts seven days, we can probably conclude that every year on eBay, a hundred or more Anglo-Saxon coins are sold and an even larger number of various other Anglo-Saxon artifacts. [2]

What these coins, brooches, and other objects offered for sale on eBay have in common, of course, is that they are generally small and metallic: they are often explicitly (or, just as often, implicitly) "detector finds": items uncovered (probably quite recently) by amateur treasure hunters armed with metal detectors and shovels. And as I have watched some number of these items sell over the last couple of years, I have come to realize that the nature of eBay may well call into question the received wisdom on how to think about such detector finds and the market for them.

Before eBay, my position on the buying and selling of such detector finds was, as I always thought of it, the ethical one: a committed and practicing medievalist would never encourage amateurs with metal detectors to remove such objects from their archeological context. Paying good money for such finds, of course, was precisely the sort of encouragement that the "ethical position" discourages, and so I always firmly believed it was my responsibility as a scholar to stay out of the market for artifacts. The ethical position was in my case also the easy one: from my home in Colorado, I have precious little actual acquaintance with networks of detectorists and dealers in England.

After tracking the progress of such items through eBay, however, I am beginning to suspect that the underpinnings of that "ethical position" may be overdue for reconsideration. What eBay is, after all, is a truly global marketplace, and the selling of detector finds in such a wide marketplace is itself a disturbing but important innovation. Further, eBay is an auction house: for the most part, items offered on eBay will sell. The two features, taken together, have important implications.

The very fact that detector finds commonly sell through eBay suggested to me that if I stay out of the market for them, the market will simply go on without me. My discouragement of detectorists is moot, except perhaps in the somewhat hypothetical possibility that my active participation in that market might raise prices and thereby encourage even more detectorists. But the global nature of the eBay market has made me reconsider the logic of the "ethical position" of staying out of that market, for detector finds from England, I am quite sure, are frequently sold overseas, to the US and elsewhere. [3]

The "ethical position" I have been describing depends upon our special concern for these objects' past. They are most valuable to us (intellectually and financially?) when located in or recovered from their original archeological context. As a result of our concern for these objects' past, we wish to discourage detectorists who violate the standards of professional archeologists, and we try to accomplish that discouragement both through professional disdain and by avoiding participation in the market for such items. What I have come to realize, however, is that we should rightly have just as much concern over the future of these objects as their past. As things stand, Anglo-Saxon and other medieval artifacts are being scattered to the four winds because eBay holds auctions where people from all over the world can bid. [4] The "ethical position," I am beginning to think, depended upon an assumption that the detectorists could reach only local markets—their activities (which we have always known we cannot stop) would cause only limited damage because whatever they dug up would still be there somewhere, in the hands of local collectors or museums. Such an assumption is no longer valid.

Indeed, the removal of medieval artifacts in small quantities (just a couple hundred often-fragmentary items a year?) to this country or others seems to me to raise crucially important questions about their future. Imagine a collector in Middle America who buys a few Anglo-Saxon or early medieval artifacts out of curiosity, a legitimate hobbyist's interest in the period, or for other, unfathomable reasons: what happens to that collection when the collector can no longer care for it? While I have some small hope that antique dealers or those who break up estates in Britain may know what to do with a few odd and fragmentary metal bits in such a collection, long personal association with a number of American antique dealers makes me much less sanguine about the knowledge or habits of their counterparts in other countries. This vision of the future of these detector finds worries me; the global market for medieval items makes it possible that they may be taken so far from their context as to end up being entirely unrecognizable and hence entirely valueless.

What is to be done about such a situation? I have no certain answers, but it seems reasonable to take steps to try to ensure that this new global market results in the complete decontextualizing of such items as infrequently as possible. Certainly we should encourage museums and other public institutions (perhaps with our financial support) to preserve even the smallest finds. But not every coin and fragment will find a home in a museum, and I would argue that it may in fact be ethical for individual medievalists to begin their own small collections, with the expectation that, as experts or at least professional scholars, we will have the knowledge and the contacts to ensure an acceptable future for these items in the hands of museums or other private collections. Without going so far as to sanction or encourage illegal activities, I nevertheless wonder if we might reasonably play the role of keepers or custodians. Our responsibility to ensure that these items remain (as often as possible) in the hands of those who will understand and appreciate them seems to me to be a responsibility almost as pressing as that of preserving them in their archeological context. [5]

Even if many Anglo-Saxonists lack the means or the will to go this far in the promotion, rather than avoidance, of individual collecting, I strongly believe that the innovations in the marketplace represented by online auction sites such as eBay demand our attention. The detecting and selling of medieval artifacts are taking place now in a marketplace that is at once much broader and more shallow than in the past. Anglo-Saxonists, medievalists, and all those interested in the past need to understand this marketplace and its implications for the objects which pass through it, and articulate, if possible, a coherent response to it. [6]



[1] I do not know enough about art history or Anglo-Saxon metallurgy to assess the accuracy of most sellers' claims that artifacts offered date from the Anglo-Saxon period, nor to determine from digital images whether objects are truly old or recent copies or forgeries. But it seems that the fragmentary nature of many items suggests their age, and surely at least some offerings are in fact Saxon. The question, ultimately, is not about how many objects are under discussion, but how we should think about them.

[2] Numbers of other Anglo-Saxon objects seem to be offered on eBay with only "Saxon" as a descriptor, although these objects are somewhat more difficult to discover using the eBay search functions. But a search for items including the word "Saxon" within the Antiquities category will almost certainly turn up items that a global search for "Anglo Saxon" will not, so the numbers quoted here for sales of artifacts are probably low.

[3] I will frankly admit ignorance of the status of international customs law in regard to the exportation of antiquities and how it might relate to the discussion at hand. The problem is clearly a complex one, however, as the case of coins suggests: coins (like books) have been collected and sold for literally centuries, and I feel sure that coin dealers (like book dealers) would be disinclined to view their stock as non-exportable merchandise—and what is a coin dealer's responsibility if a customer approaches him with an old coin to sell? Customs agents, I suspect, may also not be especially inclined to pursue most of the transactions under discussion since the value of these items is so often small: eBay allows one to search the titles of completed auctions, and such a search of auctions listing Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the title line shows that coins often bring fair sums (in excess of a hundred dollars) but other objects or fragments frequently do not.

[4] Ebay is a multi-lingual, multi-currency operation, but the number of auctions originating from Europe and Great Britian that are conducted in US dollars suggests either the intended audience for some of these items or the global nature of the dollar as currency. The ease of tranferring funds electronically makes even cross-currency transactions relatively easy on eBay, however, and I also believe that auctions listing the currency of choice as the pound or the euro often find American buyers.

[5] It may well be worth noting that at least one field of later medieval studies has begun to take this very debate seriously. I have in mind the collection of medieval "pilgrim's badges" and related objects by metal detectorists in the Netherlands (and, to a lesser degree, in England). The two recently-published collections of such badges from the Netherlands consist largely of metal-detected items, and the editors of these collections both recognize the sometimes-problematic activities of detectorists and argue that the collection of these items is nevertheless of real value to archeologists and other students of late medieval culture: H. J. E. van Beuningen and A. M. Koldeweij, eds., Heilig en Profaan: 1000 Laat-Middeleeuwse Insignes, (Rotterdam Papers 8. Cothen, Netherlands, 1993) and H. J. E. van Beuningen, A. M. Koldeweij, and D. Kicken, eds., Heilig en Profaan 2: 1200 Laat-Middeleeuwse Insignes uit Openbare en Particuliere Collecties (Rotterdam Papers 12. Cothen, Netherlands, 2000). The second of these collections, it should be noted, includes a fair number of badges listed as belonging to private collections.

[6] Although I have not explicitly addressed them here, it is worth noting that one can readily find items from virtually all early cultures for sale on eBay: Egyptian artifacts, tablets with cuneiform inscriptions, Roman items, and so on. The issues raised in this essay are not limited to medieval studies.